Jazz Bassist Stanley Clarke

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Ed Gordon talks with legendary bassist Stanley Clarke about his accomplished career and his summer tour "Trio," which includes two other music masters, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and banjo player Bela Fleck.

(Soundbite of bass riff)

ED GORDON, host:

Before Stanley Clarke, most musicians thought of the bass as a support instrument, its sole purpose as to keep time for lead instruments like the guitar or saxophone. Well, Stanley Clarke helped change that. In the early '70s, audience flocked to year the young bassist. His virtuosity on acoustic and electric bass propelled his instrument from the bottom to the top.

(Soundbite of bass riff)

GORDON: Years later, Stanley Clarke still has it. This summer he's touring with two other masters: jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and the great banjo player Bela Fleck.

(Soundbite of combo music)

GORDON: I spoke with Clarke about the unique talents of each and how they've combined for the Trio tour.

(Soundbite of combo music)

Mr. STANLEY CLARKE (Bassist): Well, you know, as you say, Jean-Luc Ponty is, you know, the great French virtuostic violinist, and Bela Fleck plays banjo, but he's the quintessential banjo player of our time. I mean, before him, I mean, the gap was so wide. When I think of banjo, you know, I think of, you know, guys playing in country and western bands, you know. Bela plays everything on that instrument. It just happens that that's the instrument that he plays, but he can play jazz, funk, whatever--classical music--and he's a real serious musician.

And, you know, so we're going out and we're going to play, you know, some acoustic music and a little bit of electric stuff, and it's a lot of fun. I mean, it's--the music is very challenging. Fans that come to see us--well, the first thing, they'll at least appreciate the effort. I mean, it's not something that anybody can just walk up on the stage and just play something like that. It's very challenging, but good, you know?

(Soundbite of combo music)

GORDON: When you talk bass players, arguably, your name is at the top of that list. Do you--and are you aware of that? And I would imagine you're appreciative of that.

Mr. CLARKE: Well, yeah, I'm definitely appreciative of it. I love, you know, all the accolades and admiration from people, you know, but, you know, being at the top of something, you know, especially as a bass player, I sort of attribute all that stuff to just hard work. I mean, anybody can achieve that. I don't believe that there's something particularly unique in my--with my DNA or whatever, you know. I just worked very hard at it. I practiced a lot. I come from a musical, artistic family. My mother sang opera, she painted, so I always sort of was around art and literature, things like that. And so I actually feel really special that I had all this stuff going when I was young, you know?

(Soundbite of combo music)

GORDON: Why so the bass? Was it--what attracted you to that?

Mr. CLARKE: You know, it's funny; I started out, actually, playing the violin but, you know, I was always pretty tall. I reached--I think I was over 6' when I was 12, 13, something like that. The violins that they had in schools in those days were these little tiny miniature violins, and I always had big hands, so that didn't work. The cello, I never really, you know, cared for that when I was a kid, but the bass...

GORDON: Yeah, that wasn't quite cool enough, I know.

Mr. CLARKE: Yeah, the cello looked kind of weird when--anyway, the bass was in the corner and it was--and no one else picked it up. You know, it was sort of a nasty-looking instrument. And, you know, I was always into challenges, and so I picked it up, and it's sort of been my life's goal to make it sound good, you know. So, you know, I was the only bass player in school and I liked that, so I just stuck with it.

(Soundbite of bass music)

GORDON: When you think about front instruments, you don't...

Mr. CLARKE: Right.

GORDON: ...think about the bass, and you really put that on the map. You know, you've got perhaps one of the masterpieces of the '70s, "School Days," not only the song itself but the album. Talk to me about the popularity of the bass and how you really shepherded that, to a great degree.

Mr. CLARKE: Well, actually, when I got into the bass, one of the first things I realized was that it needed to be liberated. You know, it's funny; when I was in bands, you know, and I used to see a lot of my other friends in bands, and I used to notice that many times the smartest, most talented person in the band wasn't necessarily the singer or the guitar player or the saxophone player. It was usually--the guy that was writing all the charts was, like, either the drummer or the bass player or the third trombone player or whatever, you know. So I thought, `Well, you know, here's this guy holding the microphone standing out front, and he can hardly spell his name.' So I just started making my own records and sort of never looked back, you know. And, you know, yeah, it was pretty--you know, it really was that simple.

(Soundbite of combo music)

GORDON: And what about Stanley Clarke as the soloist? Any look for you to get back in the studio? What have you been working on?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, you know, a couple weeks ago I went with George Duke and we did a couple concerts down in Florida, just to see if we still had it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: And you still had it, right?

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) No one got it, babe. I got a...

Mr. CLARKE: And so we decided that next year is going to be the year for Clarke-Duke, and we're actually planning our recording. Matter of fact, sometime in July we're going to get together and actually start putting stuff down.

GORDON: Well, listen, Stanley Clarke can be seen with Bela Fleck and Jean-Luc Ponty, and it goes through October.

Mr. CLARKE: Right.

GORDON: So you can catch them when they come to your town. And those of us old enough to remember the Clarke/Duke Project will be awaiting that new one, as you-all showed the people in Florida you can still lay it down and still have it.

Mr. CLARKE: Oh, yeah.

GORDON: Stanley Clarke, thanks very much for being here with us.

Mr. CLARKE: Good to talk to you.

GORDON: Nice to talk to you.

Mr. CLARKE: All right. Take care.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) So we'll take this love, try ...(unintelligible).

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org, and if you'd like to comment, give us a call at (202) 408-3330.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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